The Basics [Needful at GCSE]

There are a number of people who are asking me to go over the basics of English language again; nouns, verbs, adjectives etc, but it is not that simple really. It is all well and good knowing what each one is but it is how it works, at three levels, that you need to be aware of. 

Recently, I was asked to write a complete text for a website where you register and then do a course of work. I did one for RE and then did one for Year 7 English but I feel that this content  could be useful, if edited well, here, for you all to see and learn, especially if you are learning English as another language. For some of you, it might be your fifth language or so, so here, without further ado, is the abridged version, just giving the facts, not the tasks the website will ask you to do. 

GCSE Basics: English

As with anything, we have to start at the beginning, so this course will be in three parts, looking at Word Level words and how they are used. Then it will develop into Sentence Level work, where we will look at how sentences are formed, using certain things to aid meaning and clarity. Finally, we shall look at full Text Level work, where you will be asked to read certain extracts from stories and answer questions based on those three levels mentioned; word, sentence and text.

Happy studying!

Word Level

At Word Level, we tend to think we know a lot of words in English, so we do not need to know any more apart from a few new words we may learn from each other as we grow. Comments such as “Why do I have to do English?” are heard by me every year in the classroom, but you do need to learn what the different elements are, how they are used and how you can use them to really make your writing [and speaking] shine. The first port of call therefore, has to be the good old noun in all its common and Proper mannerisms.

As you may know, there are two major types of noun, the Common Noun and the Proper Noun. Learning which is which is very easy.

Common Nouns

A common noun is a name of something that we take so much for granted, namely an every day object like a pen, or a pencil, or a table, or a computer. They are common to us so we call them common nouns.

How many common nouns can you think of? Write a list and see if you can get past 30 common nouns. A little tip is this: if you end up putting a capital letter to the word, like a name of a person, then you have done it wrong. Common nouns do not have capital letters, usually.

Proper Nouns

A proper noun is a little bit more special than the mundane things of life because these are things we give names to, like places or people. Hence, we say we are going on hoiliday to France and that we are going with Natalie and James. Each of those three names are proper nouns because they are named things, or people.

On another sheet, make a second list, of all the names of people you know and all the places you have visited. Once again, a little tip is this: if you forget to add a capital letter, you have got it wrong.

Regular Plural Nouns

The word “plural” means more than one. So, when we write the word shoe meaning a single shoe, we add an S on the end to mean two of them. We then write shoes. Similarly, words like knife means one knife, but then we have to add something on to the end of that to signify two or more of that item. But we do not always simply add an S on the end. If a word that ends with fe like knife, then we change it to knives to mean more than one item. There is no such word as knifes. The same is true if we write a word ending with the letter F like leaf. When we write about more than one, we use the word leaves as in the leaves of grass. But what about the word story? I hear you thinking. Well, the same is true to that of words ending with “f” in that we change the ending of the word again. This time, we change story to stories. The addition of the ies at the end is significant. There is no such word as storys and before you think of a big tall buidling with many floors, that is the word storeys. A different word entirely.

Possessive Nouns

A possessive noun is a word that means something or someone belongs to something or someone. That sounds a bit strange I know but when we write the words the professor’s hat fell off his head we are in fact using a singular possessive noun because the professor is one person, a single person, so the noun [either used as a common or proper] is about the one person. If we write that the professors’ hats fell off their head then we are writing about more than one professor and more than one hat doing some falling to the ground.

Does that make sense?

Pronouns – Personal and Antecedents

A pronoun is used when writing and we are always using someone’s name in the writing. If you read a story and it said Sarah did this and then Sarah did that, followed by Sarah was amazing, before too long it would get really boring, so we add words like she and we and he into the writing. An Antecedent is a word that is directly related to the pronoun, such as her if we write the sentence Sarah walked to school with her friend.

Subject and Object Pronouns

What is the difference between her and she? They are words that can be used in a sentence and if they are used wrongly then the sentence will not make sense at all. Consider this sentence for a few seconds:

They all went to the cinema with her.

It makes perfect sense when said or read out, but put the wrong type of pronoun in there and you get “They all went to the cinema with she.” Suddenly, no sense is being made. We know, because of those rules we learnt about in Primary School, that it is a bad sentence.

Subject and object have to match each other too, so it seems, in English language writing. But sometimes, the one that catches people out is the difference between the use of I and me in a sentence. But the Queen, with her perfect English, never says My husband and me does she? This is because she knows how to use those two words correctly.

There is also the idea of compound subjects and objects where pronouns are used. That sounds difficult to grasp, but it is not. Don’t worry. Here is what it means. Think of the difference between using the words they and them. Which would be used where, to make perfect sense? Would you write it was their choice and them made it quickly? No? I did not think so. Again, this is where the right choice of word is important.

Possessive Pronouns

These are words such as our or their or his or hers. They are pronouns used in English to show that something belongs to someone or something. For example, if we write the sentences: These footballs belong to the boys only. They are their footballs, then the word that is a possessive pronoun is their because it shows belonging. How many words can you think of that you can use in contexts like this?

Reflexive Pronouns

A reflexive pronoun is used when the object of a sentence is the same as the subject. Each personal pronoun, such as I, you,he and she, has its own reflexive version, such as I/myself, or You/yourself/yourselves. Do not worry. It is not as hard as it sounds.

Intensive Pronouns

An intensive pronoun is a word that emphasises or intensifies the noun or pronoun. They are used to make an impact to the reader. They can have this effect on any noun or pronoun. For example, when we use a sentence like there was no chance to do this as a team so I did it myself it is the word myself that is emphasising the noun and making the writing more powerful.

That sounds hard but it is not.

Adjectives

An adjective is a word that describes something else. For example, the very simple sentence of The cat sat on the mat does not have any adjectives in it. It has an object, a cat and it is doing something, so there is a verb in there as well as a noun in the words cat and mat. But what kind of cat is it? What colour? What gender? How long is its hair? If you add one adjective in, usually before the noun, you can then get The black cat sat on the mat. If you add another, before the word ‘mat’ then you can write The black cat sat on the brown mat. In this way, you are describing something in extreme detail in your sentence by using one simple word.

Have a go at thinking up as many adjectives that can be used within that one sentence. Add one in each sentence until the sentence becomes far too much. Please remember also, that you need to use a comma [we will cover these later] to split the adjectives up.

Example: The black, furry, ferocious cat sat on the brown, slippery mat

Now you have a go and see what you can do to make it better. If you get to 5 adjectives for cat and 5 for mat then the sentence will be very long, so be careful. Too many adjectives can be a mistake.

Task: Make a list of nouns you can think of [names of things]. Then, create sentences where those nouns are given adjectives to describe them. See of you can get 10 nouns and 10 adjectives.

Verbs

A verb is a word that we might call an action word or as some people say, a doing word. It is the word in a sentence that tells us that something is happening. For example, the following sentence has a verb in it.

The boy walked to the school as fast as he could.

Which word is the verb, or the action word? Is it walked? You got it right! Well done. Verbs tell us more and give us more detail in the context of a sentence. They allow for more detail and for more action.

Verbs can also be considered to be transitive or intransitive. When a verb is transitive, it is followed by a direct object which is the pronoun, noun or noun phrase that receives the action of a verb. To find the direct object, ask “what” or “whom” the verb is acting on. An example of this is below:

Peter stroked the cat.

Peter stroked his cat. What was it that got stroked? His cat? The verb stroked is transitive because there is a direct link between man stroking and cat. When the verb is intransitive, there is not a direct link to an object. See the sentence below:

Kevin walked along the corridor. What, or whom did Kevin walk? No-one. Therefore, the verb walked is intransitive.

Contractions

The word contract means to squeeze in or reduce, so when we think of words that can be squeezed, we call then contractions. These are words such as should’ve and she’ll when we would write should have or she will. Below are some examples of others that can be used.

We’ve: we have Could’ve: could have He’s: he is

They’d: they would Won’t: will not Weren’t: were not

Wasn’t: was not Wouldn’t: would not Shouldn’t: should no

Which is the best way to write clearly? With a contraction, or without? You decide!

Adverbs

An adverb is a word that adds to a verb. It is as simple as that. An adverb adds meaning to a verb. For example, the verb walked can have the word slowly after it to show a little more about how something is being done. A simple trick is to learn and remember as many words that end with -ly like slowly or quickly. There are some exceptions to that rule but largely, these words tell us something more about the action taking place.

Words like faster can also be used in this way, when we say that one boy ran faster than the other. The word ran is the verb and faster acts as an adverb, telling us how this has been done. How many words like this can you think of? Make a list of them somewhere.

Relative Pronouns and Relative Adverbs

As before, one thing has to relate to another in a sentence. Where there are pronouns and adverbs it makeas sense if they match within a sentence. A relative pronoun is used to connect a clause or phrase to a noun or pronoun. You see them used everyday with the most common relative pronouns being: who, whom, which, whoever, whomever, whichever, and that. For example, we can write a sentence that says my car, which sadly broke down, is only two years old. The word car is a noun. The word sadly is an adverb. The word broke is a verb. For the sentence to make sense, all those words have to relate to each other. In the sentence used just now, which words relate to each other?

We use the words who and whom in different ways too. A famous book was once called For Whom The Bell Tolls and was a huge success. The word whom is used to refer to the object of a verb or preposition. When in doubt, try this simple trick: If you can replace the word with “he”’ or “’she,” use who. If you can replace it with “him” or “her,” use whomWho should be used to refer to the subject of a sentence.

Prepositions

Prepositions are words that tell us where something is or where something is happening. An example of this is the sentence The girl put the doll below her desk to hide it from her teacher. The only word in that sentence that tells us where something was put is the word below.

Commas

The comma is the bane of the English teacher, the one thing that is guaranteed to raise the blood pressure when students get them wrong, so it is important to know the basics of what they are, how they are used and how they can be abused.

The first thing to know is that a comma gives you the chance to take a breath when reading. Read the following in one breath and see what I mean.

The way that the driver was driving as dangerously as he was going down the road was a cause for concern for the Police Officer so the officer decided the do something about it and decided to capture and arrest the driver.

Without any commas, it is one long sentence and is very hard to read without taking breath. With commas, in the right places, the meaning is intensified. See below.

The way that the driver was driving, as dangerously as he was going down the road, was a cause for concern for the Police Officer, so the officer decided the do something about it and decided to capture and arrest the driver.

Suddenly, the sentence makes sense and is easier to read and understand. The thing to remember is that these are used to break up a sentence so as to aid meaning. If they are used correctly, then they help us understand what is written more clearly.

Task: Put the commas in the right place in the section below:

As soon as the hammer had fallen the buyer knew he had won the auction for the painting so he raised his hand which had in it a card with a number on it and stated his name so that the auctioneer could take down his name.

One thing to remember is that you should never put a comma before the word and.

Apostrophes

Some people call apostrophes ‘flaoting comas’ because they seem to float above the line you are writing on, but whatever you call them, there are two types to remember and they are the omission and possession ones.

These two types of apostrophe do two different jobs. When you omit something it means you leave it out so when you need to leave a letter out of a word, for example, out of did not you merge the two words together to get wouldnot but then take out the o and add an apostrophe in there in its place, to make the word wouldn’t.

As a GCSE Engolish teacher, I tell my students never to use the apostrophe if they can do it, apart from when writing a story and someone is talking. This is because an apostrophe is an act of brevity, of shortening words down and therefore, not Standard English, or what we might call Queen’s English.

There is a problem though when someone has a name ending with s like James. Modern English users seem to think that you can write St. James’s Street but they would be wrong to think so. It should be St. James’ Street. There is no such thing as a word with s’s as its ending.

So, two types of apostrophe.

Omissive – where something is omitted, or left out

Possessive – where something is owned by someone or something

Apostrophes are important to master, but it is possible to write without them at all. For example, a person might say the following thing:

There wasn’t really a way that we shouldn’t do the thing our manager wanted, but he wasn’t very good at being treated as if his team wasn’t able to take his orders, so we decided that we couldn’t go against his wishes and went with what he wanted in the first place.

If you took out all the apostrophes, what words would you add back in to make it into completely Standard English? Have a go at writing the sentence out, by putting the letters that are missed back in where they belong. Then you are writing using word level knowledge, writing full and detailed sentences in the correct manner.

Remember: If you do not need to use an apostrophe, do not use one!

Dashes

Word processing systems like Microsoft Word, ask us to break two words up sometimes by using a dash [-] so as to make it make sense, to the reader. But the truth of the matter is that dashes are not used very often, but you do need to know how to use them.

Sometimes we write the word email as e-mail. This is because the letter at the beginning stands for the word electronic as in mail. So how do you know how and when to use such a rare thing as this?

Think of a dash being used as the opposite of brackets, which separate something off from the rest of the sentence. The dash emphasises what is coming next. If we used brackets, or parenthesis, as it is called, we might write the following:

The rain in Spain [which is always violent] always falls on the plane.

Now imagine the brackets not there. What else can you use where the brackets are? You can use a comma and you can use a dash. Thus, the sentence might look like this:

The rain in Spain – which is always violent – always falls on the plane.

So always think about the point you can emphasise something and try using a dash instead of a comma. See if it works.

Titles And Capital Letters

Whenever we use a name of someone or some place, we need to use a capital letter. Names like James, Peter, Sarah, Joseph or Steven all need to have a capital letter to make sense. If you write robert or susan, without the capital letter, then you are using bad English. Likewise, we name things like books using capital letters as well. Sacred texts like the Bible need a capital letter, as do place names, like Paris, Rome, London and Athens. To not use them would be wrong. Finally, names of the days of the week, or the months of the year all need capital letters.

Whenever you begin to write a sentence, think about the noun rules again. Are there any Proper nouns in there, that need capital letters? If so, then use them. Use them well and your writing will improve rapidly.

There are more things you could learn on your own, like articles such as a and the and how they are placed into a sentence, but now, we move on to sentence level work. You now know what each word does in a sentence. Now, we look at how we put all of those together.

Sentence Level

Sentence Types

You might think what does the subheading here mean, but the use of the word types. Well, words and what they do are important to know, but how to correctly string them together, so perfect sense is made, is more important than that. I know some French words but I do not know, sometimes, how to put them together in a sentence, mainly because in French, the words are used in opposite order to those in English.

In English, the sentence is the King. A sentence usually begins with a capital letter, contains a few words or a lot of words, some form of punctuation like commas and semi colons and then ends with a full stop. If it does not have a capital letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end, it is not a sentence. Simple as that!

A sentence can be declarative, in that it can declare or say something. It can also be interrogative, in that it can ask something, like a question. It can also be imperative, in that it stresses that something must be done and it can exclaim, usually with a [!] at the end. It is making a statement, forcing a point home.

Tenses – How Important Are They?

When an English teacher mentions tenses he or she is talking about the way something can be talked, or written about in the past, the present or the future. For example, we can say that The boy walked to the shops which would be a past tense sentence because the boy walked. It has already happened so it is in the past. We can also write Superman II is a brilliant movie to watch which would be written in the present tense because we write about film and literature as if it is in the now, the present. Likewise, I go to work to make a living is also a present tense sentence. Future tense sentences are those where we write things like Remember, what I promised to do, I will do for you. When we say we will do something, it usually means it is to happen in the future.

Can Tenses Be Mixed?

The answer to that is yes. Books like Angela’s Ashes do this throughout the text. They use sentences that mix and merge tenses and they are very difficult to read. A simple rule is this: Present tense for writing about literature, books, poems etc. Past tense for telling stories and future tense when talking about the future. Try not to mix them! 

Sentences – Accuracy Is Important

Can a fragment of a sentence be a sentence? In the Bible, there are the words Jesus wept. It is a single sentence and is two words long. So, a very short sentence can be created, usually for effect of some kind. But a sentence usually has a Main Clause and a Subordinate Clause inside it. Being able to locat them is the right tool to have at your disposal.

A main clause is what it says, the main part of the sentence. A subordinate clause is subordinate to the main clause and usually adds detail to it. For example, read the following sentence:

The boy stood on the burning deck!

Which is the main clause? The answer is The boy stood because it tells us what is happening. A boy is standing. But where is he standing? The subordinate clause is the thing that supports the main clause, to add more detail. Thus, on the burning deck is used.

Note how you can use The boy stood and then add a full stop. But you cannot use on the burning deck as a full sentence.

Task: Write 3 sentences, each with a main clause and a subordinate clause in them. Circle the main clause and underline the subordinate clause. The longer, the better.

Simple, Compound Or Complex Sentences

Sentences can also be categorised in three different ways. A simple sentence is what it says. It does what it says. The black cat sat on the mat is a simple sentence. They are usually short and to the point. Compound sentences are those that have more than one object or subject, more than one thing happening. Connective words like whereas or therefore are used to extend the sentence out, to develop its meaning. A complex sentence is then something that contains a number of subordinate clauses in support of the main clause.

If you wish to develop your writing skills, then you need to think about the sort of things you are writing. How much detail can you add into a sentence? How much do you need to add in? Is it really necessary to overload a sentence with adjectives when three will be enough?

Shifts In Verb Tense

Verbs can be very awkward to use in a sentence when they are words like gets or got. Each of these words is a verb even though it does not look that way. They are not words like walked which are easy to see and locate, or even write about in an exam. But nevertheless, they are still verbs, but they can be mixed up. See the sentence below:

The crowd cheered as the girls received their gold medals.

The word received is the verb but you could write got their medals into the end of that sentence as well and it still makes perfect sense. If however, you was to add the word gets in there, then it would be a bad sentence because the sentence would read as: The crowd cheered as the girls gets their gold medals. In an exam situation, this would be a terrible mistake to make.

Text Level

At text level, one has to consider a number of things. These are lexis, semantics, syntax, and graphology [sounds more like A Level, I know]. We need to take each one in turn and consider what they mean at the level you are studying. You will no doubt read, in Year 10, a novel by a modern writer in the English language, like Michael Morpurgo, who has written many stories like Kensuke’s Kingdom. His writing is excellently crafted and in any test, you would be required to write about how the writer has done a specific thing when he has written something down.

In a test, you will be given a short extract, what we call a comprehension activity, whereby you read the text, look at a question and then write an answer to that question. In your later years, in GCSE, you will be taught how to do this, but you will need to look at those three levels again; word level, sentence level and text level [the whole text ot a short extract].

But what are they and how are they used?

Lexis

Lexis, or lexical choice, is the choice of words a writer uses to say something. When Charles Dickens begins his novella A Christmas Carol, he does so with these words: Old Marley was dead, to begin with! He does so to grab the reader’s attention. What kind of sentence is it? Look to the exclamation mark at the end for a clue. How many words does the sentence have? Does that make it a simple, complex or compund sentence? Now you begin to see why knowing about these things is important to you.

Lexical choice extends to you as well, as a writer. Your choice of words in the beginning of a short story about a ghost will be defined by the amount of words you know. That is your Lexicon, your library of words if you like. You would not be expected to use words I know when you do not. Likewise, when you begin to write a poem, the success of the poem may depend on what words you know that rhyme with another word.

On a text level, what you need to do, when writing or when writing about someone else’s writing, is consider the words used and how they are used. Where is the emphasis? Which words stand out more than the rest? What effect do they have on the reader, or on you? That is what is meant by text level understanding of the English language.

Task: Think of three words that are powerful and then create a complex sentence for each one.

Semantics

Semantics is something that is involved in what the meaning is of something or some piece of writing. If we talk in terms of semantics, we do so by saying that the writer of a piece of writing means to say something, or do something, but the trouble with meaning is that it is subjective, in that one person can think one thing and another can think something entirely different, based on reading the same words. Such is the power of the written word. What does the sentence The young lady wished she was not there on the dock of the bay mean? Does it mean that there is a lady who is standing on a dock in a bay but she does not want to be there? Or does it suggest something else entirely? The decision is yours and yours alone.

When Dickens begins a novel with It was the best of times. It was the worst of times does he do so to show that there is good and bad in all things and in all times? Maybe. But we can never be too sure. When you write something, do you know what you are goig to write before you write it? Such is the valley of semantics because anything written can be taken in more than one way by another person.

Task: How many different meanings can there be of this phrase? The boy on the other side of the fence wore striped pyjamas.

Syntax

Syntax is all about sentence structure. How has a writer put something together when he or she has been writing a story, or an essay, or a powerful, political speech? Sentence structure is important, because writers use things like short sentences, for effect, on purpose at times. Writers also use a variety of sentences; simple, complex and compound, to create a paragraph that is good to read, entertaining as well as fulfilling.

Sentence structure is important. One thing I ask my class to do is read the opening of A Christmas Carol. They are asked to count the sentences to see how long, in words, they are. Try it now.

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon `Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to.

Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Some of the sentences are really short, whilst some of them are very long, with added detail. Why do you think this is the case? Is it for effect, or to make it easier to read, or to make it so that more detail is given about a person or thing? All of those answers are correct. Dickens starts like this for a reason, to set his story out for the reader. As a student in a test, you will be expected to write about this in detail.

Task: Copy out the best sentence from the text above and then write a few words to say why you think it is the best. Try to mention all these elements looked at so far.

Graphology

The final thing you need to consider at text level is this; graphology, or the use of paragraphs when writing professionally, or even when you are writing a piece of work for your teacher.

Paragraphs aid reading, for anyone and anyone who chooses not to use them, or use them incorrectly, as a student in school or college, is asking for a bad mark in a test or exam. Any professional writer who uses them wrongly is making it difficult for us all to read their work clearly and effectively.

Paragraphs should, usually, be new bits of writing based on two things; a movement in time, or a change of subject. Just think if I asked you to write about your day so far. You might write about waking up in the first paragraph. Then, in the second, you might write about what you had for breakfast. In the third paragraph, you might mention the journey to school or college. Each is a new subject so should be a new paragraph. Likewise, if you began by stating that the time was the morning, when you write about what you did at lunch, it should be a new paragraph.

One way to start a new paragraph is by using something called discourse markers which are words, or phrases, that make us move on as readers. Words like firstly, secondly, furthermore, moreover and subsequently are all used at the beginning of a pragraph and help the reader to understand more of what is being written.

As a reader yourself, you may be asked to read something and then mention how the text is laid out, how it appears in equally [or not] formed paragraphs, each using discourse markers to begin a new part of the text [and so on]. You should be able to mention that any short, single line paragraphs are used for effect by the writer. Likewise, you need to learn how to structure your paragraphs well, to aid meaning and understanding more.

Task 1: Write about what you did yesterday, using 5 paragraphs of 6 lines each [30 lines]

Task 2: Write about your story, stating how the writer [you] have created this piece of work [use as many of the elements we have studied in this unit so far.

Once you have done all these things, you should have a better idea about what goes on in a sentence, how they are structured and how writers, like Dickens and Morpurgo, use language to great effect. 

Now get writing about how they do it! 

Happy reading. 

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